Your neighbour doesn’t have to be a historic adversary or an invader with whom you’ve had numerous armed conflicts; it may simply be a rival for economic, religious, ideological and geopolitical dominance. Even then, you can still maintain diplomatic and commercial relations, and your neighbour may even form part of the same political and military alliance.
Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO and the UN, but they still view one another with a suspicion that periodically threatens to come to a head. In early June 2017, Saudi Arabia became hostile towards Qatar, a neighbour with which it has much in common. The two nations are both Sunni Muslim and oil-rich, which has historically meant that relations between them have been friendly. However, Doha refused to succumb to Riyadh’s regional power plays, which prompted the Saudis to accuse Qatar of supporting extremist groups in the region; behind the Saudi accusations lay a struggle for religious supremacy in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is the epicentre of the hard-line Wahhabi movement and has invested vast sums of petrodollars in promoting its expansion, while Qatar is loyal to another movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.6 Saudi Arabia has the advantage of disproportionate force in this competition; with 30 million inhabitants and an army of almost half a million, it has the strength to crush Qatar, which has a population of just two million and 11,000 soldiers. This rivalry, in which a cocktail of religion, economics and geopolitics is aggravated by outside interests, has the potential to trigger great instability across a region that is historically unstable.
Throughout the centuries, countries have tried to maintain superiority over their neighbours in order to neuter them as a military or economic threat. They have also sought to exploit them as markets for their products, and for this purpose have sought to ensure relative stability, but whenever a neighbour seems to be a threat, the first course of action is to attempt to foster internal strife by creating or encouraging subversive groups. Heightened tensions have typically led to armed conflict, of varying degrees of intensity. In a world in which states compete globally and everyone is a ‘neighbour’, the means for weakening the neighbour remain the same – economic, political, diplomatic and military – and all are employed in order to exert power and achieve supremacy over others, in order to maintain the status quo.
A state should never entirely trust the goodwill of its neighbours. Even when not orchestrating the tension, a country will always be somewhat cheered by political division, separatist movements, social unrest or riots in a neighbour, and perhaps even by its collapse, which will allow the more stable state to gain regional control. All of this assumes that one state’s misfortune does not harm a neighbour’s economy, security and stability. States generally prefer neighbours to be stable enough to serve as a reliable market but volatile enough not to progress too significantly. This is preferable to chaos, for a neighbour in disarray is lost as a market and might send an exodus of people spilling out across the region or become a catalyst for widespread social unrest.